RSF School to again survey parents on Universal Meals Program

Rancho Santa Fe School District buildings.

Reimbursement from state for free meals would eliminate daily options from Ki’s, Jersey Mike’s


The Rancho Santa Fe School District board continues to grapple with how to best implement the state’s new Universal Meals Program. At the Nov. 3 board meeting, the board gave direction to survey parents again about the district getting reimbursement from the state, as per input from their new food consultant getting funding from the state will mean a complete overhaul of the way lunch is served at R. Roger Rowe School.

“The biggest challenge is going to be eliminating competing food sales,” said Ryan Gomes of School Food Solutions.

According to Gomes if the district becomes a School Food Authority (SFA) and a part of the National School Lunch Program, the requirements to receive funds from the state, they could no longer offer the 35 daily paid options from their vendor Ki’s and there would be no more lunchtime deliveries from Jersey Mike’s—currently, students select about 143 paid meals from Ki’s and order about 70-75 sandwiches a day. “Every sandwich that they sell is one less reimbursement meal that you’re selling and that’s going to cannibalize your program,” Gomes said.

With the reimbursement route, students’ only options going forward would be the district- provided free breakfast and lunch or to bring their own food from home.

“That is going to be a non-starter here,” RSF School Board President Jee Manghani said. Manghani has always been in support of reimbursement because if the state was going to force them to offer this program they should pay for it, but he now thinks the board needs to think carefully about moving forward.

Manghani said a parent survey is a good option in order to be transparent in the board’s decision-making process, however, Trustee Kali Kim was unsure of the value of surveying the community again, expecting them to be still divided: “We have to make the tough choices.”

This year California became the first state in the country to mandate a statewide program providing free breakfast and lunch for all children. Seven states have followed suit and there is an increasing push for universal meals at the federal level.

Since the spring, the district has been debating whether to go the non-reimbursement or reimbursement route with the state. With direction from the board to pursue reimbursement, last month the district brought on School Food Solutions to help to run them run a compliant meal program and become a SFA to be reimbursed for the meals, a process that can take four to 10 months.

Gomes said currently, he did not think Rancho Santa Fe’s program was in compliance.

Ki’s has told the district it is not interested in participating in a request for proposals if the district goes the state reimbursement route. Gomes said he thinks two big issues the district is going to run into will be finding a food vendor and finding staff.

“It is not a great time to be a school food vendor,” Gomes said, citing record high food and fuel costs for vendors who then must sell the meals under the reimbursement rate. Over the last year, Gomes said schools have run into a lot of problems including food delivery issues, price increases, reduced food choices, and vendors not renewing contracts.

Additional school staff will be needed to run point of sales, serve food, equipment upkeep and completing the paperwork for the state—“It’s more than just handing out lunch.”

There could be an option for Rancho Santa Fe to partner with a neighboring school district to provide meals but, as Gomes said, right now most districts are “tapped out” in rolling the program out to their own students and are unable to take on another district’s meals as well. He said the situation may change as prices stabilize and districts build capacity.

In September, the district surveyed its parents about its Universal Meals offerings, finding some dissatisfaction and varying levels of participation. Per the survey, 40% of respondents said they were participating and only 5.9% said they were very satisfied with the free option.

At that time, 53% of the respondents supported the district going with the non-reimbursement route, continuing to provide the free meal option along with 35 daily paid options from their vendor Ki’s.

Superintendent Donna Tripi said Ki’s has added variety to the menu this month and chocolate milk is also now offered to make the free meals a more enticing option. She told the board she has not received complaints from parents about the free meals in the last month.

The state is now offering a $5.40 reimbursement rate per lunch.

Depending on what is served, free breakfast participation averages 25 to 80 students and free lunch participation averages 51 to 85. According to the district’s Director of Finance Allison Oppeltz at this pace, lunch costs are estimated to be around $70,000 annually and breakfast costs $30,000 annually, a total of about $100,000. These estimates include staffing and the state-required milk at both meals but with the reimbursement route, the district would need to add staffing and equipment at additional costs.

Board members expressed some frustration about the program and the continuing difficulty in the decision about what to do moving forward: “I feel like we’re building a train to nowhere to solve a problem we don’t have at Rowe,” said Trustee John Tree.